One of the few benefits of mature age is some experience and the ability to have seen several trends come and go. In this article we focus on trends in garden design and challenge some of the current trends, notably the failure to establish balance and year-round interest in the garden. It was actually prompted by a visit to my neighbour’s backyard and seeing the great variety of colour, shape and texture that comes from a thoughtful range of planting choices.

I asked David Louden to write this piece because I know he is a passionate supporter of balance in garden design, whether we are talking about a residential backyard or a design for a new housing development. David shares the mature tag with me. He has worked in Landscape Architect practices for many years and also spent several years with Stockland, before leaving recently to set up his own business. Here’s what he has to say:

“Fifty years ago, housing blocks were a quarter acre, with enough lawn to play cricket in the backyard   There was a shrub border around the yard of variety and interest with a large enough room for cut flowers, to grow vegies and run a few chickens. To hide the footings a garden of variety and interest and a well tendered lawn in the front represented the personality of its owners.”

A weekend in the garden with the kids was the way our parents spent quality time with their families.

Shurbs the forgotton levelToday, the standard block is 450 square metres, 15 metres wide, the house is set back 6 metres and there’s a two-car garage. People like to entertain outdoors; they take their kids to sporting and cultural events, the “media’ room activities take precedence over garden maintenance, but spaces do exist for creative landscape solutions.

The contemporary response to “garden design” often ignores the role plants play in creating great liveable environments. A recurring theme in today’s landscape practice is one that displays “pattern made” gardens filled with mono-specie masses of grasses and ground-covers or gravel and white rocks with spiky accents often driven by waterwise and minimal maintenance objectives. A landscape setting that is featureless with low visual interest.

In reality grasses / ground-covers deliver poor impact for value when compared to shrubs which mass up and create a good garden structure; a three dimensional dynamic, with variety and interest, colour, texture, an aesthetic stimulating to the senses.

full palette of plants in a balanced composition offer great potential as elements that complement modern architecture and lifestyles. Plants functions may be categorised for use in many ways, for space articulation, for screening, privacy control and progressive realisation. A combination of plants with different shapes, forms, densities, textures and scale can produce an infinite variety of design solutions for even the most limiting contemporary architectural space.Plants effect peoples moods, the rustle of leaves in the wind, the fragrance of foliage, flowers, freshness after rain, filtered light, full shade…something natural that indicates seasonal change.

Some notes to consider

Ideally a landscape architect should aim to provide a combination of ideas functional, perceptual; all visually enhancing, a landscape that complements the house architecture and streetscape; really good landscapes that appeal to the senses, are sustainable, easily managed and have great day 1 impact and value.

Consider that scale plays an important role in conveying this message and must be carefully considered, providing the participant with a sense of well being and engagement. This should not be confused with a reduction of space through clutter and lack of constraint, but rather a simple unfolding of the new character. Aim to create a sense of “the potential of this place”. Generally people are limited by what they see or what they have seen. In this context homogeneity and calmness need to be coupled with contrast and spontaneity to create a rich and rewarding experience which converts to “I want to be part of this rare experience”.

Planting design needs to consider what happens in a landscape over time designers should be encouraged to select an innovative plant palette compatible with the micro climates formed by a modified site environment.

A tree canopy should provide the overriding impression of the landscape and the benefits and values of trees selection should be foremost in the planning and design of the public realm. The palette should include robust plants selected for seasonal floral effect, year round dense green foliage and perceptual characteristics, with different shapes, forms, densities, textures and scale for an infinite variety of design solutions. A requirement to reduce ongoing maintenance cost through a focus on environmentally sustainable principles, waterwise design and utilization of energy efficient landscape materials should be a prime consideration in any design…but not mindless adherence to trends set by those without an understanding of the aesthetic of what people like.”

David and I could be dismissed as fossils but use of smaller spaces and minimal maintenance doesn’t need to translate to hedge-driven sameness and failure to take account of plant variety, particularly though greater use of shrubs, often the forgotten level of planting in today’s gardens.